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Mar 21, 2014

Hull hope Long makes former club pay

"West Brom's loss has certainly been our gain," said Hull City boss Steve Bruce this week. More an endorsement of his own business acumen than a criticism of West Brom's, but Bruce remains convinced he landed a January bargain in forward Shane Long.

Bruce can only hope Long proves him right on a weekend where the stakes climb steeply. Hull's home game with West Brom will provide one team with immense belief of survival and inject doubt into the other. The Premier League table suggests there is little between the clubs -- just two points after 29 games of the season -- but Long will aim to make a big difference in a first reunion with the Baggies.

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Long is too nice for animosity ahead of the game. There will be no sniping at his former employers or claims he has moved on to better times. There may not even be a celebration should he score.

Yet the Republic of Ireland international would not be human if he did not want to leave a deep imprint on Saturday's game. Just two months after West Brom chose to cash in on one of their most valuable assets to end six months of contract wrangles at the Hawthorns, Long will be desperately keen to prove a point. The closing months of his two and a half years at the Hawthorns were hardly a breeze. Once the West Brom board had accepted an offer from Hull on the final day of the summer window, a deal that was dramatically pulled an hour before the deadline, Long knew his face no longer fit. He carried on regardless, notching a memorable double in a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa, but suspected the end was nigh. Steve Clarke's exit as manager, one of Long’s biggest supporters, would effectively seal his departure a little more than a month later.

Hull and Long have since gone on to enjoy a lovely little honeymoon. Two goals in Long's first three appearances helped notch four precious points before another swashbuckling performance inspired a 4-0 win at Cardiff without him scoring. It is four games without a goal but Hull fans already talk of a firm new favourite. What's not to like? Quick, industrious and clever, he is a forward beyond anything seen at the KC Stadium for some time.

West Brom, of course, will maintain they got the better of Hull. A reported 6.5 million pound fee for a player unwilling to commit his long-term future is far from unsubstantial and went some way to redressing the financial outlays of summer. However, should they succumb to relegation and Hull stay up, all that fiscal logic will be gone with their Premier League status. West Brom's board gambled and now they pray it doesn't backfire this weekend.

Long will inevitably be the man in every photographer's lens as a pivotal game kicks off on Saturday and West Brom fans will inevitably fear the worst. Football's law dictates a goal will come from the forward who scored 22 in 64 starts wearing the blue and white of Albion. Don't ask questions, it just does.

Hull must hope it is a winner. The back-to-back defeats suffered at the hands of Newcastle and Manchester City mean it is now three losses on the spin at the KC Stadium and no league wins on home soil since December 28. That 6-0 win over Fulham seems a long time ago now but a timely victory this weekend would bring celebrations no less joyous.

The Tigers do not need a win like those in the bottom three, but a failure to find one of the two Bruce still believes they need this weekend will do little to ease the nerves. Whether it comes against West Brom, West Ham, Stoke or Swansea (Hull's next four opponents before an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley), it needs to come soon.

A point would be no disgrace in a week that has again been dominated by the proposed name change to Hull Tigers, a move now doomed to failure following the findings of an FA Committee, but the three would be exceptional. If Hull can be up on 33 points from 5pm on Saturday evening, then the top-flight would surely be all but secured for another season. And if Long can be the man that delivers it, then all the sweeter for him and Bruce. West Brom's loss really would be Hull's gain then.